When Gil and Jenna Lewinsky move back to Israel, they intend to come with a lot of luggage: a flock of approximately 100 sheep.
Their unlikely baggage all began with a store-bought bunny rabbit, which indirectly transformed them from young professionals in Israel to heritage sheep farmers in rural Canada trying to protect a breed of sheep whose genetics date back 3,000 years.
Gil Lewinsky bought the rabbit as a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife, after the two had moved from Israel to South Africa and then to western Canada. As bunnies are wont to do, the present soon gave birth to a litter of baby bunnies.
The Lewinskys looked for homes for the baby bunnies, and they found a woman willing to adopt. That woman, however, also happened to be looking for a home that would adopt some of her sheep. The sheep are a special heritage breed called “Jacob sheep,” which traces its origins to the Middle East 3,000 years ago. Jacob sheep, which are physically similar to the sheep described in the Book of Genesis who have “spots and speckles” in Jacob’s flock when he was a shepherd for his father-in-law Laban, are now sharply dwindling in Canada as small farms close in favor of large, commercial farms.
The Lewinskys ended up falling in love with the idea of protecting a vanishing breed of biblical sheep.
“What drew us to the Jacob sheep is that the story parallels the story of the Jewish people,” explained Jenna Lewinsky by phone from their home in Abbotsford, a rural town near Vancouver in the western part of Canada. “Jews have been wandering for 2,000 years, and the sheep have a similar story, from Canaan to Canada today. It’s a full journey.”
“It started with four sheep,” Gil Lewinsky said. “Then it was ten sheep, then 17 sheep. Then they gave birth… Now we have 65 sheep. This year it could increase to over 100 depending on the number of lambs.”
The Lewinskys, both 31, met in Jerusalem. After being married for a year they decided to try living in Jenna’s native South Africa, and then Canada, where Gil lived as a child. Jenna is an accountant, and Gil is a freelance journalist who previously worked at the Jerusalem Post. In Canada, the couple rented a rural property and tried their hand at raising calves, but quickly decided cattle farming wasn’t their cup of tea. Then the bunny led them to heritage sheep raising.
“The reason we took the first four lambs is that we heard the numbers were dwindling in Canada,” said Jenna Lewinsky. “We thought, if we don’t at that particular moment start saving them, there won’t be any who are able to go to Israel. [Jacob sheep] should be like a national animal. But farmers we spoke to said there aren’t any Jacob sheep in Israel.”
“I’ve always had a fantasy of preserving endangered animals,” she added. “If we didn’t start at that moment, most of our flock would have been lamb chops.”
Jacob sheep trace their origins to the ancient Middle East. The sheep were sometimes kept as ornamental animals on British estates due to their spotted coats and their tendency toward multiple horns. Sheep usually have two horns, but Jacob sheep have four to six horns, including large curved horns that frame their face. They are also prized for their resistance to disease and the high quality of their fleece, though they do not produce a large amount of fleece.
Genetic markings for this breed date back at least a few thousand years. The journey for this breed of sheep began in ancient Syria (also the biblical home of Laban) and led through North Africa. Moorish invaders brought the breed to Spain, then to England, where the animal was something of a trophy sheep. A number were brought to North America, originally for zoos and then later for commercial use.
However, most commercial farms now raise sheep bred for certain characteristics, such as large amounts of meat or wool, so numbers of all heirloom breeds have shrunk.
The breed received the name “Jacob sheep” based on Genesis Chapter 30, when Jacob talks about leaving Laban’s home and taking part of the flock as his payment for years of service. “I will pass through all thy flock today, removing from thence every speckled and spotted one, and every dark one among the sheep, and the spotted and speckled among the goats; and of such shall be my hire.” (Genesis 30:32)
Lewinsky notes that the path of the breed mirrors the path of Jacob to Canaan and then Egypt. While the Jews were in Egypt, the sheep were incorporated into the North African flocks. Somewhere along the way, although the Jews returned to Israel, the uniquely speckled sheep did not return with them.
In addition to their nomadic history, the sheep also have another uniquely Jewish characteristic: they suffer from Tay-Sachs disease, a genetic disorder that afflicts Ashkenazi Jews.
Tay-sachs disease comes from a narrow inbreeding of chromosomes, which is why the purebred sheep, which all originated from a small genetic pool, have a similar issue. The Lewinskys hope that doctors will study Jacobs sheep to understand more about how the disease afflicts people.
Today, there are just a few thousand Jacobs sheep worldwide, mostly on heritage farms in England and North America. The Lewinskys hope to establish the first heritage farm in Israel to raise Jacob sheep. They want to return to Israel and buy a farm in the Golan Heights, where the mineral-rich soil means they won’t have to provide supplemental minerals like farmers do for this sheep in other parts of the world.
“We’re trying to tell the public that we have something from the Tanach [Old Testament], a piece of Jewish history, and we feel they belong in the land of Israel,” said Jenna Lewinsky. “Conserving animals is a form of tikkun olam [fixing the world],” added Gil.
They’ve estimated that it will cost $80,000 to $100,000 to bring a flock of 100 sheep from Canada to Israel in specially constructed livestock boxes.
But there’s one major problem for their “baa-liyah”: bureaucracy.
Due to concerns over diseases, Israel only permits the importation of live livestock from a limited number of countries where there is no evidence of certain livestock diseases such as the bluetongue virus or the mycoplasma bacteria, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development said.
The spokeswoman explained that if someone is interested in importing livestock or animal products, they must complete an internationally recognized assessment, which examines both their country of origin as well as the specific animals that will arrive in Israel. The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), an international organization, sets the standards for the assessments.
The spokeswoman added that the process of importing livestock consists of several stages, and even once approved animals arrive in Israel they must be quarantined for a certain length of time to ensure they are not carrying diseases.
The first stage of the importation process is to carry out a risk assessment of the country of origin. “Canada is not approved as a country that you can import sheep from, so we did not carry out a risk assessment for this flock, and cannot approve their application,” said the spokeswoman.
The United States is also not on the list of approved countries for live livestock. That’s why rabbis from the Temple Institute trying to import Red Angus cows from the US in an attempt to raise a blemish-free red heifer were forced to import frozen embryos rather than live calves.
The Israeli Embassy in Canada is trying to facilitate meetings between the Lewinskys and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in an attempt to get an exemption.
“When Jenna and Gil talked to me, I thought it was a very beautiful story,” said Eitan Weiss, the spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Canada. “Why not promote it? Why not bring the valuable sheep to Israel, especially when we know about rarity of sheep in Israel? That was before we knew of limitations.”
Weiss said that while he understands the veterinary requirements enacted by the State of Israel, he’s optimistic that the Lewinskys will be able to work something out with the ministry that will safeguard against the risk of disease but allow the Lewinskys to return to Israel with their sheep.
“We trust the Ministry of Agriculture to do those deliberations and come to proper conclusions,” he said. “I can’t say why situation is as it is… These sheep are not supposed to come as food products or for consumption, but for touristic and educational opportunities.”
While Weiss has thus far been unable to arrange a meeting between Ministry of Agriculture representatives and the Lewinskys, he did say that the ministry had been responsive to his initial queries.
Heritage farms and local Canadians have also embraced the Lewinsky’s quest to bring the sheep to Israel. The local Chabad rabbi offered a class at the farm when the weekly portion about Jacob taking Laban’s sheep is read in synagogue. Ed Fast, the former Canadian international trade minister, visited the flock in August. Fast is currently a local MP and environmental critic for the opposition.
The Jewish press, trendy agricultural magazines, and the local Canadian press have all written articles about the flock. After the Lewinskys get the go-ahead to return to Israel, they’ll launch a fundraising campaign toward getting their sheep on the ba’aliyah plane. They share updates on their website, Friends of the Jacob Sheep.
They hope that with the approval from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, they could be on a plane as early as next year, though the slow progress of Israeli bureaucracy may hamper that plan.
The Lewinskys point out that sheep have always been intricately woven into the history of Judaism, from the wool used for ritual garments like the tallit to the sacrificial pascal lamb.
“Moses was a shepherd. He saw the burning bush when he was running after sheep,” said Gil Lewinsky. “Attending to livestock is a core profession of our people, and an important part of our roots.”